Friday, September 25, 2015

Hollow presidential campaigns: an American tradition

As we roll our eyes amid the foolery and hokum of our 2016 presidential campaign, it is worth remembering how long Americans have endured hollow politics at the highest level.

George Templeton Strong, precocious diarist
Andrew Jackson went down in history as the father of the Democracy, wresting the White House from bewigged bluestockings. But it was the Log Cabin campaign of 1840 that turned presidential politics into hoopla.

Gen. William Henry Harrison, former governor of the Indiana Territory, was the perfect candidate for the Whig strategy of avoiding divisive issues, especially slavery, and taking advantage of the hard times of the late 1830s.

Harrison’s campaign exaggerated the significance of an 1811 fight against Native Americans at the Tippecanoe River and portrayed him as a rough-hewn candidate of hard cider and log cabins.

Harrison won, but his presidency is now known only for its brevity.

When I came to New York last year for my new job, I wanted to gain at least a sense of the city’s rich history. Among the books I turned to was George Templeton Strong’s diary. Strong, a lawyer, kept the diary for nearly 40 years beginning in 1835. I’m reading the 1952 version edited by Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas. Its four volumes run to 2,250 pages. I’m still bookmarking the Civil War years and have the fourth volume to go after that.

Harrison campaign token
But today I want to share a taste of it. These are Strong’s observations of the 1840 campaign and its aftermath, begun the year he turned 20.

May 6, 1840 – Harrison is going ahead. How little one can calculate on political events. When he was nominated, I thought it the most ridiculously ruinous act that the party could possibly have stumbled upon, and now if he isn’t elected, at least he’s going ahead, far beyond the possible success of Clay or Webster and probably of Scott. It’s a pretty commentary, though, on the wisdom of His Majesty the People that he can be so bamboozled by the slang of “hard cider,” “log cabins,” and “Tippecanoe.”

May 8 – . . . I went to the office, and there met George Anthon for a Tippecanoe pilgrimage. Tonight is the anniversary of that greatest military operation of the present age, that most heroic achievement of ancient of modern warfare – surpassing all “affairs” on record from the siege of Troy down to the Battle of Brokow – to wit the raising of the siege on Fort Meigs, when the British were smitten hip and thigh by the mortal Harrison. Candidly I never heard of the affair till the last three months. But that only shows what ignoramuses we are. Just to think of the besieging army’s firing some two hundred and fifty shot in one day – and actually killing one man and wounding ten! What a regular fire-eater the old Hero must be!

Harrison almanac cover
However, the loaferage of New York not being particularly well versed in the history of this or any other age, the Battle of Fort Meigs does as well to tickle them with as anything else, and to be sure the procession and fuss tonight surpassed inspirit and numbers anything of the sort that I ever saw here – except during the excitement of election. The procession seemed interminable. I thought as the Irishmen did that somebody must have cut off the other end of it. Banners, log cabins on wheels, barrels supposed to be full of hard cider, and all sorts of glories adorned its march. . . . Of course, the Locos* disgraced themselves as usual, by a fierce attack on one banner in particular – representing Matty** shinning away from the White House with O.K. under it, i.e. “Off to Kinderhook.” Brick bats were thrown and heads broken and an attack was made on the Garden (subsequently), but the siege was raised by a few sticks and stones dropped on the heads of the assailants from above. Altogether it was a grand affair – Harrison forever!

[*Pejorative shortening of Locofocos, a faction of the Democratic Party.]

[**Martin Van Buren, the incumbent president, was seeking a second term. Kinderhook, N.Y., was his hometown. Van Buren’s nickname was “Old Kinderhook,” an echo of “Old Hickory,” Andrew Jackson, under whom he had been vice president.]

Harrison campaign coat button
Sept. 28 – Today has been great in the annals of stump oratory. The park has been disgraced by the herding together of the unshorn, unwashed, and indecent hedonism of Locofocoism, while at the Exchange has been a grand gathering of merchants of New York to hear the Almighty Daniel Webster discourse of the Militia Law, the Subtreasury and General Harrison. The crowd and jam was marvelous to behold. Webster spoke for about two and a half hours; I heard part of it, but the squeeze tightened every minute, and I eloped, out of regard to my ribs. Webster certainly has intellect stamped on his face in clearer characters than any man I ever saw.

Nov. 3 – Really, I’m beginning to wish this affair ended; the novelty of the thing is over and I’m tired of humbug, lying, spouting, wearing, O.K., and the Old Hero. Nothing but politics. The newspapers crowd out their advertisements for mendacious “returns” that nobody believes, the walls are papered three deep with humbug, banners and inscriptions dangle over every street, mass-meetings are held in every groggery from National Hall down. If the North River were actually on fire, or if a live kraken were to sail into the harbor, or if the continent were to sink into the sea, the papers wouldn’t be able to find room for the news.

William Henry Harrison
[William Henry Harrison carried 19 states, including New York, to Van Buren’s seven. He won the electoral vote 234-60 and was inaugurated the country’s 10th president took the oval office on March 4, 1841.]

April 5, 1841 – Mournful news this morning. General Harrison died on Saturday night, a few hours less than one month from his inauguration. The news was most unexpected to me, for I didn’t suppose him to be very seriously ill, and he was said on Saturday to be recovering. I confess I was never so sincerely sorry for the death of any one whom I knew of merely as a public character. Though not possessed of any great talent, I believe he was a good, honest, benevolent, right-minded man – qualities far more rare among our political people. It’s a bad thing for the Whig party – for Tyler I imagine half a Democrat – a bad thing for the country at this crisis, when the commercial interest is looking so anxiously to the movements of government and we may be on the eve of war and can ill afford any time to make new arrangements at home. . . .

Everything in the shape of a flag in the city is up today and at half mast, and I was heartily glad to see one flying on Tammany, and to see the Standard in mourning. All the papers except the New Era, the Post and the Journal of Commerce, have had decency enough to let party feeling drop.

April 10 – Weather raw, cloudy and unpropitious. Went out at twelve o’clock to see the funeral procession. The whole population of the city in the street either as actors or spectators. Houses hung with black, particularly along the line of march. Chatham Street literally hid with lugubrious drapery. I established myself in Chatham Square, and a fine sight it was to look up the rising ground towards the Park, the houses on each side shrouded with black, the dense mass of people between, and in the center of the procession pouring down, a wide stream of plumes and bayonets and dark banners. It began to pass at a little before one, moving rapidly, headed by the military – about 6000 – uniform companies and U.S. troops and Marines, then the urn, the General’s horse (hypothetical), the “pall bearers,” Martin Van Buren, and divers other great men, the civic dignitaries, all the fire companies, about 3000 men I presume – generally a rowdy set, though one of two companies looked decent, then Masons, etc. By that time it was half-past two and I was tired and it was beginning to snow, so I walked down Chatham Street to the Park, where at least one-third of the procession remained, filing slowly out – indeed it was half-past three before they were all in motion. 

1 comment:

  1. Campaign nonsense is nothing new but it has reached art form status and now seems to be the norm. Check your email, I sent one of my infamous letters.
    Willie, DLI